By JOY BROWN
Marathon Petroleum Corp. would only provide funding for Findlay’s downtown traffic and parking plan, and is not dictating the details, city officials and organizers said this week in response to public claims of cronyism and conflict of interest.
“There’s been a lot of talk about Marathon’s involvement,” Mayor Lydia Mihalik said Wednesday at one of three public meetings on the plan, a session that focused on gathering opinions from the Findlay Young Professionals group.
Marathon’s February announcement about plans to expand its complex, and to donate $5 million toward the downtown traffic and parking project, is serving as “a catalyst” and is “what’s allowing us to move forward with this,” she said.
Marathon’s expansion project is eligible for up to about $20 million in property tax breaks through Findlay’s Community Reinvestment Area. The company has said it will donate up to $5 million of the savings to the downtown project.
Its only stipulation, stated in a Feb. 3 letter to Mihalik, is that the money be used toward improvements that will “increase the safety of (Marathon Petroleum Corp.) employees and visitors as pedestrians and motorists in and around the Findlay campus.
“Improvements to vehicular traffic management provide better accessibility to MPC’s headquarters, which increases the overall attractiveness of the company’s campus,” Marathon President and CEO Gary Heminger wrote. “As specific improvement projects are identified by the City of Findlay, MPC requests that distribution of these funds are directed with priority on activities that meet the stated MPC objectives.”
While Marathon isn’t involved in the project details, some of its employees are.
There are seven Marathon employees serving on the Findlay-Hancock County Alliance’s 37-member “economic restructuring committee.” Comprised mostly of representatives from businesses, government, and organizations, it has been helping to develop a downtown revitalization plan, including the traffic and parking component.
Serving on the committee, too, is Councilman-at-Large Grant Russel, who works for Marathon. He has been involved in behind-the-scenes planning, and has served as a point person for the project, attending meetings and providing answers.
Russel said he took it upon himself to become involved, as a member of City Council.
He is adamant that his involvement in the downtown plan does not present a conflict of interest.
“I’m not conflicted because this is not a Marathon project. This is a city government project,” Russel said. “Marathon is just a funding source. It isn’t calling the shots on this. This is being driven by the city, economic development and citizen input. That’s why the planning continues to evolve.”
Russel said he thinks he was asked to be on the Alliance’s committee because of his “love for the downtown” and because of his prior participation in the now-defunct Findlay Downtown Area Association.
“I’ve not had one conversation with anyone at Marathon about this project. I can’t recuse myself from voting on everything that Marathon has an interest in within the city. And if its involvement is considered a conflict, how can Marathon be involved in any type of public service whatsoever?” Russel said.
“Community involvement for Marathon employees is encouraged,” he said. “That’s one of the great things about the company.”
“I will talk to anyone, at any place, at any time about this project. And it’s fine if we disagree, but don’t be disagreeable,” Russel said. “I’m trying to communicate information as much as possible so that people can be informed instead of just having knee-jerk reactions.”
Russel did recuse himself from discussion and voting at a meeting of council’s Planning and Zoning Committee when Marathon-requested street and alley vacations were considered, and will do so when council as a whole addresses that legislation, he said, because it involves “the city giving them (company) property.”
“I’m obviously in conflict on that, but that is not germane to this conversation” about downtown traffic and parking changes, he said.
Russel said the conflict issue was discussed with Findlay Law Director Don Rasmussen, who gave him the green light for participation.
Ohio’s ethics law, when addressing public employee conflict of interest, mainly focuses on monetary and tangible gain, and “improper influence.”
Council President Jim Slough thinks Russel should take a step back.
“Grant is a fine man. He’s done a fine job as a councilman-at-large. But to me, this boils down to an issue of perception,” Slough said. “If I was in his position, I would recuse myself” from voting on the downtown project.
Ohio Ethics Commission:
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